- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Senate will take quick action to try to push through judicial nominees Republicans blocked at the end of last year, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy said Tuesday.

In laying out the committee’s agenda for this Congress, Mr. Leahy said there’s no need to hold new hearings for nominees who went through the process last year, and he challenged Republicans to drop tactics they used to prevent speedy action.

“Vote ‘yes,’ vote ‘no.’ Don’t vote ‘maybe’ by holding them up,” Mr. Leahy said in remarks at the Newseum.

The Vermont Democrat also said his committee will try to tackle updating the U.S. patent system, explore the balance between security and liberties in the Internet age, and try to take some action on immigration legislation. He singled out Ag-Jobs, a bill to legalize illegal-immigrant agriculture workers, as one area he wants to pursue, but did not mention “comprehensive immigration reform,” the name immigrant rights groups have given to bills that would broadly legalize most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.

But judicial nominations remain among the most contentious issues before the committee, and Mr. Leahy said the pace of confirmations has been so slow it’s hurting the right of litigants to get a timely hearing.

All told, President Obama saw 62 of his judicial picks confirmed in the 111th Congress, including two Supreme Court justices. That’s substantially lower than the 100 judges President George W. Bush saw confirmed in his first two years in office - though Republicans say the high court nominations of Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan took up so much time that the numbers are comparable.

They also said much of the blame lies with Mr. Obama, who they said has been slow in making nominations, leaving the Senate with little time to consider his picks.

“We would hope that Chairman Leahy would encourage the White House to make nominations in a timely fashion, rather than focus on a handful of controversial nominees,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

At the end of the last Congress, in December, the Senate returned all unconfirmed nominees back to the president, including 19 judicial picks who had been voted out of the committee and were just awaiting floor votes, which the GOP blocked in the waning hours.

Mr. Obama has renominated most of his picks already, and Mr. Leahy said now the Senate must act.

Of those 19 nominees, four are labeled controversial picks by Republicans, while the GOP said the rest weren’t reported out of the Judiciary Committee until mid-December, leaving little time for floor action.

Mr. Leahy led Judiciary Committee Democrats when they pioneered ongoing filibusters of Mr. Bush’s nominees, but he said the problem now is that Republicans are even blocking presidential picks who had strong bipartisan support inside the committee.

Nominations are an area where the Senate has exclusive jurisdiction, but on all legislative matters, things will be tougher this year for Mr. Leahy, who will have to negotiate with the new Republican majority in the House.

Mr. Leahy said he does see the chance for common ground with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, on patent issues.

But on immigration, Mr. Leahy’s failure to promise a broad immigration bill will be disappointing to Hispanic rights groups, who for years have thought they were on the verge of success.

Mr. Leahy said his committee will focus on those proposals most likely to boost American jobs, which he said means strengthening visa programs for foreign investors at the top end of the wealth scale, and agriculture workers at the low end.

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